Thursday, May 16, 2013
Drones, leaks and loose lips: underneath the AP scandal
Contrary to what seems to be an emerging narrative about this AP scandal, it is simply not true that the AP and the government are equally culpable. In fact, if there is one person responsible for the detail about the informant getting out, it's the man who now heads the CIA. And he let it slip during a "talking points" session with a bunch of national security TV commentators.
First, let me just say that the constitutional principle at stake in this AP scandal is so paramount that I've been loathe to even write about the details of the case. The idea that the government has the right to do sweeping fishing expedition subpoenas of the allegedly free press without their knowledge or any judicial oversight is mind boggling to me and regardless of the precedent in other cases, I'm simply appalled that any administration would do it. There are ample ways to go about dealing with issues that don't chip away at the first and fourth amendment. Unfortunately, this administration is in love with secrecy and covert activity and has turned national security into an intimidation tactic against a free press. It's extremely disappointing.
But as to the details of the story, if you aren't reading Marcy Wheeler you aren't getting all the context and information you need. She's been following it in real time for the past year and I highly recommend you do it to get up to speed. Her timelines of the events alone are vital to understanding what happened with this leak.
Here is just a brief outline of what was going on during that period:
: Greg Miller first reports
on debate over signature strikes
Around April 20
: UndieBomb 2.0 device recovered
Around April 22
: John Brennan takes over
drone targeting from JSOC
: Drone strike that–WSJ reports, “Intelligence analysts [worked
] to identify those killed” after the fact, suggesting possible signature strike
: Robert Mueller in Yemen
for 45 minute meeting, presumably to pick up UndieBomb
: WSJ reports
that Obama approved use of signature strikes
: John Brennan gives speech
, purportedly bringing new transparency to drone program, without addressing signature strikes
: Government asks
AP to delay reporting the UndieBomb 2.0 story, citing national security
May 6: Fahd al-Quso killed
: Government tells AP the national security concerns have been allayed; AP reports
on UndieBomb 2.0
: ABC reports
UndieBomb 2.0 was Saudi-run infiltrator
: Drone strike in Jaar kills
a number of civilians
That tells quite a story when you look at it in full context doesn't it, particularly the fact that the debate over the drone strikes was bubbling up at the time. And it isn't exactly the story the government is telling people about the cowboy press putting American lives in jeopardy with their irresponsible reporting, is it? I urge you to read through Marcy's reporting and click those links above if you are interested in the details that led to this scandal.
But what strikes me as the single most important detail that nobody's talking about is this, which Marcy wrote about many times over the past year and which should have precluded John Brennan's confirmation as CIA director:
WASHINGTON | Fri May 18, 2012 12:46pm EDT
(Reuters) - White House efforts to soft-pedal the danger from a new "underwear bomb" plot emanating from Yemen may have inadvertently broken the news they needed most to contain.
At about 5:45 p.m. EDT on Monday, May 7, just before the evening newscasts, John Brennan, President Barack Obama's top White House adviser on counter-terrorism, held a small, private teleconference to brief former counter-terrorism advisers who have become frequent commentators on TV news shows.
According to five people familiar with the call, Brennan stressed that the plot was never a threat to the U.S. public or air safety because Washington had "inside control" over it.
Brennan's comment appears unintentionally to have helped lead to disclosure of the secret at the heart of a joint U.S.-British-Saudi undercover counter-terrorism operation.
A few minutes after Brennan's teleconference, on ABC's World News Tonight, Richard Clarke, former chief of counter-terrorism in the Clinton White House and a participant on the Brennan call, said the underwear bomb plot "never came close because they had insider information, insider control."
A few hours later, Clarke, who is a regular consultant to the network, concluded on ABC's Nightline that there was a Western spy or double-agent in on the plot: "The U.S. government is saying it never came close because they had insider information, insider control, which implies that they had somebody on the inside who wasn't going to let it happen."
The next day's headlines were filled with news of a U.S. spy planted inside Yemen-based Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), who had acquired the latest, non-metallic model of the underwear bomb and handed it over to U.S. authorities.
At stake was an operation that could not have been more sensitive — the successful penetration by Western spies of AQAP, al Qaeda's most creative and lethal affiliate. As a result of leaks, the undercover operation had to be shut down.
That detail about the informant wasn't in the AP story, it came from John Brennan, super spy, who let the cat out of the bag after the fact. And yet the government subsequently went on a witchhunt against the AP. And it's fair to suspect that it did so not because of national security --- after all, the AP simply reported a glorious thwarted terrorist plot success story without the detail the government claims put lives in danger --- but rather as an act of ... something else.
Read the rest of that story to get the background on what the dispute between the AP and the government really was at the time. It's laughably prosaic: the government had agreed to let AP release their story of glory, but says they refused AP's request not to comment for an hour after its publication. The AP denied that there was any such request. That's it.
But there was a leak about the informant and it came from John "loose lips" Brennan in that conference call with administration mouthpieces getting ready to go on TV:
Several days after the first leaks, counter-terrorism sources confirmed to Reuters that a central role in the operation had been played by MI-5 and MI-6, Britain's ultra-secretive domestic and foreign intelligence services, whose relationship with their American counterparts has been periodically strained by concern about leaks.
I'm going to take a wild leap and guess that the AP sweep was a CYA operation to placate the British who were upset that the AP even had the original story of the glorious thwarted bomb plot --- a story that the administration clearly wasn't all that upset about except for the timing. (According to the AP, the administration had planned to make the announcement themselves a day later.) After all, if the agreement to hold the story broke down over the alleged request that the government not comment for one hour as government officials alleged, it's fairly obvious their concerns were less about national security and more about spin. It was only after Brennan spilled the beans about their real secret that this thing came apart.
These sources acknowledged that British authorities were deeply distressed that anything at all had leaked out about the operation.
The White House places the blame squarely on AP, calling the claim that Brennan contributed to a leak "ridiculous."
"It is well known that we use a range of intelligence capabilities to penetrate and monitor terrorist groups," according to an official statement from the White House national security staff.
"None of these sources or methods was disclosed by this statement. The egregious leak here was to the Associated Press. The White House fought to prevent this information from being reported and ultimately worked to delay its publication for operational security reasons. No one is more upset than us about this disclosure, and we support efforts to prevent leaks like this which harm our national security," the statement said.
The original AP story, however, made no mention of an undercover informant or allied "control" over the operation, indicating only that the fate of the would-be suicide bomber was unknown.
The DOJ is saying this investigation is completely divorced from the rest of the government, a task taken on inside the agency at the direction of James Cole, since Eric Holder recused himself. I guess we should all be properly grateful that the department is so concerned with our foreign policy and national security that it has taken it completely upon itself to police government leaks to the press more stridently than any DOJ in recent memory without any guidance from the national security apparatus. But if that's the case, this one should have been an easy one: obviously this AP story was planted by someone who was quite proud of the operation, not someone who was critical of it. And the one detail that potentially put people's lives at risk was clearly accidentally leaked by James Brennan after the fact. I don't think it was all that complicated.
digby 5/16/2013 09:00:00 AM